Tuesday, September 15, 2015
Spruce Pine Town Council, TRAC (Toe River Arts Council) funding, and the Mitchell County Gay Straight Alliance
There was a rumor going around that the Spruce Pine Town Council decreased their funding to the Toe River Arts Council (TRAC) because TRAC rented a room to the Mitchell County Gay Straight Alliance. We tried to find out if the rumor was true. Here's the email we sent out about what we learned.
Dear GSA friends and supporters,
Maybe you've heard the rumor that the Spruce Pine Town Council decreased their funding to the Toe River Arts Council (TRAC) to punish TRAC for renting space to the Mitchell County Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) to show the movie PRIDE. Maybe you've also heard that the town council did this at the request of the editor or publisher of the Blue Ridge Christian News. We heard this rumor and it concerned us very much. We tried to find out if it was true. We were not able to find out for certain, but we did learn some interesting things along the way.
At a special meeting on June 17, the Spruce Pine Town Council voted 3-1 (one member, Roger Burleson, was absent) to reduce TRAC's funding from $6,000 to $3,500 in order to provide an additional $2,500 in funding to the Spruce Pine Library.
On June 27, the Mitchell County GSA showed the movie PRIDE at TRAC. PRIDE is an award-winning movie based on the true story of a group of London LGBT activists who raised money to support striking Welsh miners in the 1980s. More than 50 people came to see the movie. It was the day after the Supreme Court ruled that marriage equality was the law of the land and the mood was joyful. It was a wonderful evening.
In the July 1 edition of the Mitchell News-Journal, reporter Andrew Mundhenk reported on the special budget meeting, including the reduction to TRAC's funding. TRAC's renting the space to the GSA was not mentioned in the article and Mr. Mundhenk said later that it was not mentioned during the town council meeting.
On July 15, the Mitchell News-Journal ran a front page story on the Spruce Pine Town Council reducing TRAC's funding. This edition also included an editorial titled, "Spruce Pine should restore TRAC funds." There was no mention of TRAC renting the space to the GSA in the article or the editorial. The paper also included a poll question: "Should the Town of Spruce Pine restore the money cut from TRAC?" TRAC asked its supporters to vote YES in this unscientific poll via email and several social media posts. TRAC did not mention the GSA in any of these requests. The final vote in the Mitchell News-Journal poll was: YES 861 votes and NO 2,011 votes for a total of 2,872 votes. (If you read the Mitchell News-Journal regularly, you know that most polls get far fewer responses. The poll the week before had a total of 19 votes and the poll the week after had a total of 109 votes.)
In the July 22 edition of the Mitchell News-Journal, there were several letters to the editor about the town council reducing TRAC's funding. One mentioned the GSA. Sally Morgan Guerard wrote, "The apparent reason (to cut funding), which has not been reported publicly, is that the town council determined it did not approve of the Arts Council renting its space to the Gay-Straight Alliance." As far as we know, this has been the only public mention of the rumor.
We began to hear that a lot of people believed this rumor and we determined to find out if it was true.
We spoke with Sally Morgan Guerard and other TRAC supporters. We also spoke with TRAC Executive Director Denise Cook and two TRAC board members. When we asked where people had heard this rumor, we learned that they had heard it from someone affiliated with TRAC, or they had heard it from someone else who had heard it from someone affiliated with TRAC. One board member had heard that the issue was raised during the town council meeting. The second board member had heard about it from the first board member. Several people said they had heard it from Denise Cook or from someone who had heard it from Denise Cook. When we asked Denise Cook where she had heard the rumor, she said everything she knew was second- or third-hand and she did not have any firsthand knowledge about whether it was true. Several people said they had heard that the editor or publisher of the Blue Ridge Christian News had complained to members of the town council about the movie being shown at TRAC and that was why TRAC's funding was reduced.
We obtained a copy of the June 17 town council minutes and saw that there was no mention of the GSA. We spoke with Town Council Member Darla Harding and and Spruce Pine Town Manager Richard Canipe and were still not able to confirm the rumor.
We were really starting to get frustrated. We wanted to defend TRAC and the GSA if this rumor was true, but no one - including TRAC board members and staff - was saying anything publicly.
We submitted a public records request to the Spruce Pine Town Clerk. We requested:
"access to and a copy of all public records, including electronic communications, made or received by members of the Spruce Pine Town Council, Spruce Pine Mayor, and Spruce Pine Town Manager between May 20, 2015 and July 20, 2015 that pertain to or mention any of the following: Toe River Arts Council (TRAC); Arts Resource Center (ARC); Arts Council; Spruce Pine Library; Avery-Mitchell-Yancey (AMY) Regional Libraries; Spruce Pine Main Street (SPMS); Mitchell County Gay Straight Alliance (Mitchell County GSA); and/or the showing of "Pride" the movie (shown by the Mitchell County GSA at TRAC in June).”
The Truth of the Matter
(Note: you can view copies of the emails and other documents mentioned here:
Less than two weeks later we received word that our records were ready. The records included documents from Town Manager Richard Canipe, Mayor Rocky Buchanan, and Town Council Member Darla Harding. There were no documents from the remaining three council members. Finally we learned that there was at least a kernel of truth in the rumor.
In its monthly email newsletter sent on June 1, 2015, Spruce Pine Main Street included an announcement about our free showing of the movie PRIDE in downtown Spruce Pine. Apparently, Clint Pollard, editor of the Blue Ridge Christian News, saw this and objected. Mr. Pollard forwarded the Spruce Pine Main Street newsletter to the mayor and wrote:
Please see the email (below) from Spruce Pine Main Street with their June "Calendar of Events."
I personally and spiritually object to SPMS publicizing the showing of the movie "Pride" on behalf of the Mitchell County Gay Straight Alliance. Since when did our town decide to advocate/promote the point of view of a sexually oriented organization?
I hasten to add that this is my opinion - not an attempt to speak on anyone else's behalf. But I am troubled that this movie is being publicized by a taxpayer funded entity; and being shown at a Mitchell County United Way funded agency.
If the Gay Straight Alliance wants to show their movie, it's their Constitutional right to do so...so they should do it on their own without the support of Spruce Pine Main Street! It is contrary to the mission of SPMS to promote a film about gay sex!
Please let me know if you wish to discuss.
Committed to spreading "Good News",
Clint E. Pollard
Blue Ridge Christian News
261 Oak Avenue
Spruce Pine, NC 28777
Mayor Buchanan responded, "I could not agree more. While I was unaware of this until you brought it to my attention, we will find out more about this."
Mayor Buchanan copied several people on his response, including Town Manager Canipe and the three town council members who did not respond to our public records request. Mr. Pollard also forwarded his email to Town Council Member Darla Harding who provided a copy of it in response to our public records request.
Mr. Pollard also sent an email to the Executive Director of Spruce Pine Main Street. She forwarded it to the Spruce Pine Town Manager, who provided it in response to our public records request. This email is similar to the one Mr. Pollard sent to the mayor, but not identical. There is no mention of the movie being "a film about gay sex" in this email.
Attempt to Get More Records
We followed up directly with the three remaining members of the town council since we knew that at a minimum they had received a copy of Mayor Buchanan's reply to Clint Pollard (which included Mr. Pollard's original email).
One thing that stood out to us is that it appears that all of the town council members use personal email accounts to conduct public business. In addition, some council members said they had deleted emails pertaining to public business even though North Carolina law requires these emails to be preserved even when they are sent or received on personal email accounts.
Roger Burleson told the town clerk to tell us that he shares an email address with his wife that he rarely uses, and that he had probably received the email and had probably deleted it.
John Boone said in an email, "[t]he only thing I has (sic) was an email from Clint Pollard addressed to me. I no longer have that on my email. I am sure he sent it to all of us. I can get a copy if anyone kept a copy. I did not keep a copy or respond to his email. I do not have anything on my phone in text or email that fit your request. Other than the one Mr pollard sent to me."
Larry McKinney did not respond until we sent him a third request. He forwarded his copy of Mayor Buchanan's email and he also sent a document to the town clerk to forward to us. This document appears to be a poorly retyped version of an email he received from former Regional Library Director Dr. Daniel Barron. We don’t know why he provided this rather than a copy of the original email. From documents provided by other people we could see that Mr. McKinney was also copied on other emails that matched our public records request. We don’t know why he didn't provide copies of those emails. We followed up again with Mr. McKinney, but have not heard back from him.
On August 10, TRAC Board Member Starli McDowell, TRAC Executive Director Denise Cook, and former TRAC Executive Director Susan Larson addressed the Spruce Pine Town Council during their regular meeting. Denise Cook asked that the council restore the full $6,000 of funding. No motion was introduced and no vote was taken during that meeting.
Our Thoughts About All This
After all this we still don't know if this rumor is true and we still have some serious concerns.
1. We could find no firsthand sources to confirm the rumor. It was not mentioned in any of the Mitchell News-Journal coverage. It was not mentioned in TRAC’s email and social media requests to vote YES in the Mitchell News-Journal poll. No one affiliated with TRAC mentioned it when they addressed the town council and asked that the funding be restored.
2. TRAC Executive Director Denise Cook said to us that she had been advised (by board members whose names she did not share) to “take the high road" and not divide the community over this issue. We wish she, and others speaking for TRAC, had addressed this issue publicly. Had they done so, and had we been able to verify the truth of the rumor (something that we might have been able to do if it had been acknowledged publicly), we would have stood up to support them.
3. If it's true that the editor of the Blue Ridge Christian News has this kind of power over our local elected officials, that is a big concern. But even if it's not true, many people believed that it could be true and acted on that belief. Many local nonprofits, including TRAC, regularly submit news and other information to Mr. Pollard to be published in the Blue Ridge Christian News. We're pretty certain that Mr. Pollard would not share any Mitchell County Gay Straight Alliance news in his publication. We encourage local nonprofits to reconsider the value of publicity in the Blue Ridge Christian News given the discriminatory and divisive views promoted by its editor.
Allison Bovée and Amy Waller
Co-founders, Mitchell County Gay Straight Alliance